Pope Francis came to Egypt on Friday for a historic visit to the Arab and Muslim-majority nation aimed at presenting a united Christian-Muslim front to repudiate violence committed in God’s name.
The Pontiff is holding a series of deeply symbolic meetings in Cairo with Egypt’s religious and political leaders; he is also to participate in an international peace conference organised by Al-Azhar, the world’s primary seat of Sunni Islamic learning.
Francis says he wants to bring a message of peace to a country that has for years endured an increasingly emboldened insurgency led by a local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group.
“It’s a trip of unity, of fraternity,” Francis told journalists travelling with him aboard the papal plane.
The Friday-Saturday visit is also meant to lift the spirits of Egypt’s large Christian community after three suicide bombings since December — including deadly twin Palm Sunday church attacks — killed at least 75 people. IS claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi, a general-turned-president, declared a nationwide state of emergency following the Palm Sunday attacks in a bid to better deal with the insurgency through wider police powers and swift trials.
Francis stepped out of the Alitalia jet to a red carpet welcome in the early afternoon hours in Cairo, after taking off from Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport earlier in the day. Two children, a girl in a white dress and a boy in a black tuxedo, presented Francis with bouquets of flowers.
But there was no local crowd to welcome him on the tarmac, as is the norm for papal welcomes. Despite a heavy security presence, Francis was driven into town in a simple blue Fiat, his window rolled down, eschewing the armoured motorcades of his predecessors.
His first stop was the opulent Ittihadya palace, where he met with el-Sissi. Both leaders stood to attention as a military band played the national anthems of the Vatican and Egypt.
After talks with el-Sissi, Francis headed to Al-Azhar — the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Islam teachings — where he was to meet privately with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Al-Azhar’s grand imam, and participate in an international peace conference.
In the meetings, Francis will likely seek to strike a delicate balance as Egypt’s top imam has been the target of mounting criticism by the pro-el-Sissi media for his perceived failure to modernise Islam’s religious discourse and purge canonical books from outdated teachings and hatred for non-Muslims.
The goal of the Pontiff’s trip is to bring a message of peace to a country that has for years endured attacks by Islamic extremists and to encourage a culture of respect and tolerance for religious minorities, said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state.
“The fundamental issue is education, and educating those of different religious beliefs and especially the young, to have great respect for those of other faiths,” Cardinal Parolin told the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. “The question of language is fundamental: when you use a violent language, there is the danger that it can result in violent acts.”
Later Friday, Francis will head to the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church, whose followers are the vast majority of Egypt’s estimated nine million Christians, to meet its spiritual leader, Pope Tawadros II.
Francis and Tawadros will preside over an ecumenical prayer service in St Peter’s church, the central Cairo church hit by a suicide bomber in December. Together they will pray for the victims of the attacks — most of the 30 killed were women.
Francis has frequently spoken out about the present day’s Christian martyrs and the “ecumenism of blood” that has united Catholic, Orthodox and other Christians targeted for their faith by Islamic militants.
Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican number two, said he hoped Francis’s visit might help convince them to “stay in their countries despite the difficulties and continue to give their Christian testimony in a majority Muslim society.”
While Francis eschewed the armoured “popemobile” his predecessors used on foreign trips, security was visibly tightened for the 27 hours he will be on the ground in Cairo.
Streets that will be used by the Pontiff’s motorcade around the Coptic Orthodox cathedral of St Mark’s and the Vatican embassy in the upscale Zamalek neighbourhood were cleared of cars. Police also swarmed Zamalek, a Nile River island where Francis will sleep on Friday at the embassy.
Policemen in riverboats patrolled the Nile in front of the embassy. Security men, meanwhile, were posted every hundred metres or so along the 20-kilometre (12-mile) stretch between the airport and central Cairo ahead of Francis’ arrival and armoured cars were stationed in front of the presidential palace.
The Pope’s visit, however, is unlikely to cause much disruption to the city of some 18 million people as it falls on the Muslim Friday-Saturday weekend, when the usually congested traffic is significantly lighter.